Engagement key to reducing negative effects of shelters, say 2 southern facilities

·5 min read
Calgary's Alpha House includes a day centre for people experiencing homelessness, detox, outreach and housing programs. It's been in operation for 40 years. (Calgary Alpha House Society/Facebook - image credit)
Calgary's Alpha House includes a day centre for people experiencing homelessness, detox, outreach and housing programs. It's been in operation for 40 years. (Calgary Alpha House Society/Facebook - image credit)

Communicating with neighbouring businesses and residents is key to reducing the negative impacts of shelters, say experienced southern shelter workers.

The territorial government, through the Northwest Territories Health and Social Services Authority, is planning to build a new, permanent day shelter and sobering centre in Yellowknife. It has selected a site on 51st Street, but requires authorization from the city, which will provide the public with a chance to give feedback.

So far, shelters have been a hard sell in the city.

The territorial government had to invoke a state of emergency to establish a second shelter last November, when COVID-19 restrictions reduced the capacity of the combined day centre and sobering centre.

Health Minister Julie Green said the government had looked at 26 other locations, only to find they were unavailable or unsuitable or that the owners were unwilling to have a day shelter on their property. The issue for neighbours is the intoxication and antisocial behaviour that often accompany shelters for those experiencing homelessness.

"Some of the things that we do try to do to mitigate community concerns is to be as responsive as possible," said Shaundra Bruvall, who is with Alpha House in Calgary.

It includes a day centre, detox program, outreach program and housing programs. It can typically accommodate up to 120 people, but COVID-19 restrictions have dropped that limit to 88. Alpha House recently opened another shelter in Lethbridge, Alta.

Street patrols

Bruvall said the shelter makes sure all of the surrounding businesses have a phone number to the shelter that's monitored 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The neighbours are told to call immediately if they see anything they believe shelter staff could help out with.

"We do community rounds. We try to do them every hour … to make sure nothing is going on that shouldn't be happening," Bruvall said.

"We do work with neighbours to build what we call a good neighbour agreement or good neighbour strategy to talk about how we can communicate better, how we can collaborate on solutions."

Staff at Yellowknife's two day shelters also patrol the block around each building, according to officials.

"Our shelter team is very committed to the neighbours and the surrounding businesses of the area," said Jenna Scarfe, director of mental health and community wellness for the Northwest Territories Health and Social Services Authority.

"We are doing our best to stay engaged ongoing to try and mitigate any concerns that come forward. Our shelter manager has great contact with Overlander Sports and they've been great partners in this."

Scarfe said there are no dedicated security staff at either the temporary shelter at the old Side Door building or the combined day centre and sobering centre across from Northern News Services. Staff are trained to de-escalate situations before they become violent.

Ongoing staffing challenge

Scarfe said staffing is an ongoing issue in Yellowknife. It is the same in most shelters, though Bruvall says because of its size, Alpha House can sometimes shift staff from one program to another to temporarily fill staffing gaps.

Shelter House in Thunder Bay, Ont., with a capacity of 62 people is closer to the scale of facilities in Yellowknife.

"We do have a high turnover, it's difficult work," said executive director Michelle Jordan. "We have a difficult time retaining staff at times, so we keep hiring, we keep training, that's just what we have to do."

Shelter House in Thunder Bay, Ont., has a capacity of 62 people. One source of staff is nearby post-secondary schools with social work and addictions treatment programs.
Shelter House in Thunder Bay, Ont., has a capacity of 62 people. One source of staff is nearby post-secondary schools with social work and addictions treatment programs. (Nicole Ireland/CBC)

Both Thunder Bay and Alpha House have access to a source of staff that no longer exists in Yellowknife — students looking to get into social work or addictions treatment. Jordan says Shelter House gets a lot of staff from Confederation College and Lakehead University. Both schools run social worker programs.

Alpha House draws staff from University of Lethbridge mental health and addictions programs.

Aurora College's social worker diploma program was shut down just as shelters in Yellowknife were getting up and running.

The challenge of keeping fully-staffed, and maintaining a core group of staff that can be called to fill-in on short notice, is key to keeping staff in shelters safe.

At Shelter House in Thunder Bay, there are only two staff on duty to manage up to 62 clients, including. Staff there wear a device that will help them get help quickly.

"When people come in for their shift, they're given a panic button to wear during their shift," explained Jordan, adding its for any time staff feel in they are in danger or if there's a dangerous situation happening or a medical emergency.

"They press the panic button and that sends a signal to the security organization we deal with and they call police, fire ambulance for us."

Like Alpha House and the Yellowknife combined day centre and sobering centre, Shelter House has surveillance cameras inside and outside their building.

Jordan says money is tight for shelters in Thunder Bay, but there is strong support in the community for Shelter House.

"I will just say that we typically have to raise $450,000 a year to continue our services and we do that every year," she said. "To be able to do that is pretty phenomenal for the size of Thunder Bay."